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'Disheartening': DFO looking into vessel that got way too close to grey whale

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is investigating a crew aboard a Zodiac vessel that was seen photographing a grey whale less than a metre from the animal.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is investigating a crew aboard a Zodiac vessel that was seen photographing a grey whale less than a metre from the animal.

The incident on Wednesday just off Skidegate in Haida Gwaii was concerning and a violation of special distancing rules designed to protect whales, says Adam Jackson, field supervisor with the conservation and protection branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The encounter was filmed and posted on Facebook, alerting fisheries officers. Some residents speculated the crew was from a National Geographic vessel in the area, but Jackson did not comment on that.

All boats must maintain a 100-metre distance from any whale, or 200 metres when the whale is resting or with a calf, said Jackson.

Jackson said the investigation is ongoing and fisheries officers have a “suspect vessel” but have not yet been able to conduct any interviews to confirm its involvement.

The Fisheries Act allows up to $100,000 in fines for getting too close to a whale, he said, but it’s up to courts to decide on a penalty based on the severity of the incident.

Jackson said Haida Gwaii is a place to enjoy nature, and “to see people treating the whales in that way is rather disheartening.”

Marine zoologist Anna Hall said she was surprised by the photos and the proximity of the vessel to the whale “given the amount of attention that’s been given over the past decade in our coastal waters about giving these animals some space.”

She said there is always a danger of boat strikes for both the whale and humans on board, but the proximity of the vessel also adds extra stress for the whale.

“These grey whales have just undergone a huge migration from winter calving grounds in Mexico and are making their way back to the cold waters of B.C. and Alaska for the summer months when they are feeding, so it’s a really important time of year for them to ensure they get enough calories so they can make the return trip next fall,” Hall said.

“This is the feeding season and they’ve just swam thousands of kilometres to get here. They need some space to feed well so they can continue on their lives.”

Incidents of boats getting too close to whales can be reported to a DFO hotline at 1-800-465-4336. Jackson advised taking note of vessel names and licence numbers.

dkloster@timescolonist.com